3.0 Family violence and post-separation parenting

In this section, we discuss why family violence is a critical factor in making decisions about parenting and the assessment of children’s safety and best interests. We begin with a discussion of the impacts of child exposure to IPV, and then consider the multiple forms of family violence that may impact the parenting of perpetrator and victim parents.

3.1 Impacts of child exposure to intimate partner violence

The term “exposure” of a child to family violence covers a wide range of circumstances including hearing a violent event, visually witnessing a violent event, intervening and being a part of a violent event, and experiencing the aftermath of a violent event (MacMillan & Wathen, 2014). A Statistics Canada study found that half of victims who had children in the home during an incident of domestic violence report that the children witnessed the violence (Conroy, 2021b); this very likely under reports the extent to which children may be aware of violence in the home. The impact of child exposure to parental IPV has been well established. Even when children are not present or do not hear the abuse occurring, they are still impacted by the effect on their caregivers and through knowing about the abuse.

Researchers who have interviewed children who have lived in homes with family violence have found that they are very often aware of the IPV that occurs and often also disclose incidents of their own abuse (Noble-Carr et al., 2020). Middle school-aged and teenaged children are finely attuned to issues of fairness and “see through” abusers’ justifications of the use of power to gain unfair advantage. Callaghan et al. (2018) found children recognized that subtle controlling behaviours, such as a perpetrator’s desire to know all aspects of family activity, were used to restrict both the actions of both the victimized and the children themselves. Children were also aware of and able to explain how perpetrators continue to control the family following separation, and the continuing impact that it has on them.

The negative effects of childhood exposure to IPV have been documented in numerous studies, systematic reviews and meta-analyses (e.g., Artz et al., 2014; Emery, 2011; Fong et al., 2019; Gonzalez et al., 2014; Graham-Bermann & Perkins, 2010; Holmes, 2013; Levendosky et al., 2013; McDonald et al., 2016; Vu et al., 2016). Most notably, research indicates that children exposed to IPV are more likely than other children to be aggressive and have behavioural problems (Emery, 2011; Gonzalez et al, 2014; Holmes, 2013; Vu et al., 2016); have different physiological presentations (Hibel et al., 2011); and exhibit higher rates of Post-Traumatic Stress DisorderFootnote 4 symptoms (Levendosky et al., 2013; McDonald et al., 2016).

Although attention to IPV incidents is important, for many children, exposure to IPV is better understood as a condition relevant to all aspects of children’s lives (Cunningham & Baker, 2007). Katz (2016) suggests that while coercive control may seem “invisible” (p.49), it has profound negative impacts on children, including in limiting their social interaction with peers, preventing engagement in extra-curricular activities, and restricting access to their mother (Jouriles & McDonald, 2015).

It is also critical to recognize that children are not “passive victims, but rather active participants in trying to make sense of their experiences. Children often take autonomous action to try to understand and address violence in their home. These actions may provide children with feelings of pride and efficacy, which challenges discourses that see protective behaviours of children as inherently damaging, though children may be at risk when intervening between parents (Buchanan et al., 2015; Katz, 2016; Lapierre et al., 2018).

Although the serious effects for children who are maltreated or exposed to IPV have been well documented, not all children who directly and indirectly experience family violence later develop severe emotional and behavioural problems (Bowen, 2015; Howell, 2011; Howell et al., 2010). Outcomes of individual cases vary and are affected by a combination of factors, including the child’s age and developmental status when the abuse or neglect occurred; the type of abuse (e.g., physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse), the frequency, duration, and severity of abuse; and the relationship between the victim and the abuser (Vu et al., 2016), as well as the family’s cultural and social context. These varying outcomes can be seen in families where children have similar risk factors and exposure experiences, but have very different short-term and long-term outcomes.

The potential consequences of family violence for children are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1: Overview of potential consequences of harm for children as a result of family violenceFootnote 5

Table 1: Overview of potential consequences of harm for children as a result of family violence
Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers
(ages 0-3)
School-age children
(ages 4–12)
Adolescents
(ages 13-19)
Impact into
Adulthood
  • preterm birth, infant mortality, and low birth weight
  • adverse neonatal outcomes from mother’s abuse of substances to cope with violence
  • parent experiencing violence forms unhealthy attachment with child due to heightened state of stress/anxiety
  • behavioural issues
  • social difficulties including difficulty in regulating emotions
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms
  • difficulty with empathy and verbal abilities
  • excessive irritability, aggression, temper tantrums, sleep disturbances, and emotional distress
  • resistance to comfort
  • adverse psychosomatic effects
  • impacted neurocognitive development
  • physical injuries
  • develop anti-social rationales for abusive behaviour
  • self-blame
  • internalizing behaviours (e.g., humiliation, shame, guilt, mistrust, low self-esteem)
  • anxiety and fear
  • difficulty with social skills
  • difficulties with emotional regulation
  • negative peer relations
  • depression
  • bullying
  • academic abilities compromised
  • physical injuries
  • depression
  • suicidal ideation
  • anxiety
  • aggression
  • social withdrawal
  • unhealthy attachments leading to difficulties forming healthy intimate relationships
  • distorted views of intimate relationships
  • lack of trust
  • heightened risk for violent behaviours toward peers or intimate partners
  • substance use
  • anger issues
  • long-term emotional distress
  • physical injuries
  • difficulties with emotional regulation
  • risk of perpetrating violence in own families
  • decrease in quality of parenting
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • dissociation
  • PTSD
  • difficulties with emotional regulation
  • low educational achievement
  • chronic diseases (e.g., liver disease, sexually transmitted diseases)
  • sleep disorders
  • substance abuse

3.2 Multiple forms of family violence: Overlap of child abuse and IPV

There are several critical factors that need to be considered when there is evidence of IPV. One is the possibility of the co-occurrence of violence perpetrated directly against the child. IPV and child abuse often occur in the same family (Bidarra et al., 2016). It has been estimated that in homes where children have been exposed to IPV, more direct forms of child maltreatment are four times more likely than in homes without such violence (Hamby et al., 2010).

Most of the research on the co-occurrence of IPV and direct forms of child maltreatment has focused on fathers and on physical abuse of children. Meta-analytic research has confirmed that men who have been violent in their intimate relationships have higher levels of general anger and hostility than men without such a history (Birkley & Eckhardt, 2015; Norlander & Eckhardt, 2005; Spencer et al., 2022). Many studies confirm that such traits translate to greater over-reactivity and more rejection in parenting (Francis & Wolfe, 2008; Scott & Lishak, 2012; Stover & Kiselica, 2015). High rates of anger and hostility are also likely contributors to the co-occurrence between perpetration of IPV and child physical abuse (Herrenkohl et al., 2008; Stith et al., 2009). Perpetrators of family violence have been described as “parenting differently from other parents in that they often mirror the coercion and domination of their spouse in their parenting practices” (Nielsen, 2017).

As discussed above, children who live in a home with a parent who is abusive to the other parent may be harmed even if they are not direct victims. Children can also be affected by witnessing a parent abuse a sibling, regardless of whether they themselves are targeted for abuse (Teicher & Vitaliano, 2011; Tucker et al., 2021). That is, the child who witnesses the abuse of a sibling may have a secure relationship with the parent, but the experience of seeing a sibling victimized by that parent may profoundly shape a child’s view of the world and relationships. Furthermore, the observer child may feel guilty about being safe, or conversely, come to see the victimized child as deserving of the abuse, to make sense of the violence.

3.3 Special considerations about post-separation parenting by perpetrators of family violence

When making post-separation parenting plans to protect the parent victim, in addition to the overwhelming evidence of the need to consider the history of IPV and coercive control as well as ongoing IPV issues, significant concerns about the parenting capacities of IPV perpetrators should be taken into account.

3.3.1 Perpetrating parents often draw children into abuse

Children are often brought into the abuse of a parent by an abuser. Children may be brought into abuse as “pawns” in a competition with the non-abusive parent. They may be asked directly, or indirectly, to report on the activities of the other parent. The abusive parent may consistently attempt to present themselves to children as the “better” parent and attempt to enlist children in efforts to isolate the other parent. Children may be blamed for failing to side with an abuser, and the abuser may distort their reality by telling false and sometimes frightening stories about the other parent (Jaffe et al., 2008). Such alienating behaviour, usually perpetrated by men who have abused their female partners, is a significant concern in some cases (Fidler & Bala, 2020).

Another way that an abuser can bring children into patterns of abuse is by “aggressively inserting” themselves into children’s everyday lives. Separation is a time when parenting activities and responsibilities often change. Perpetrating parents who have had little involvement in the day-to-day lives of children prior to separation may, after separation, suddenly want to become involved with their children in ways that are not appropriate for the child’s stage of development and needs. A parent who is attuned to their child’s needs and focused on the best interests of the child will generally attempt to follow a child’s schedule and the rhythm of their day-to-day activities, especially when the child is experiencing the stress of parental separation. An abusive parent, in contrast, tends to see their involvement with the child as a “right,” often reinterpreting their past lack of involvement as a tactic of the other parent. The abusive parent often then tries to insert themselves into children’s routines and activities without consultation and cooperation. Children, regardless of their wishes, may be coerced into complying with these changes.

3.3.2 Parenting of the victimized parent is often a focus of abusive behaviour

An additional factor for consideration of the court is the extent to which the victimized partner’s parenting is a focus of a perpetrator’s abusive and coercively controlling behaviour and how a perpetrating partner exerts control. A perpetrating parent may disparage the other’s parenting and blame them for difficult child behaviour (Hardesty et al., 2008; Holt, 2015). Perpetrating parents may also deliberately undermine the other parent, or attempt to corrupt children’s views of the other parent, or directly or indirectly insist that children understand or take “their side” in their view of the other parent. They may abuse children in front of the victimized parent to control both, make the victimized parent watch or take part in the abuse of their children, threaten to report the victimized parent to child protection, or blame the victimized parent for problems in the family (Bancroft & Silverman, 2002; Bancroft et al., 2012). This form of violence is a distinct tactic of coercive control that can occur alongside other forms of physical, psychological, sexual and financial abuse (Heward-Belle, 2017). Abuse focused on the parent-child relationship undermines the victimized parent’s confidence in their ability to protect their children, affects the relationship between the victimized parent and their children, and may send children the message that their victimized parent is not able to protect them. Further, in situations where criticism of parenting is the focus of coercive controlling behaviour, children cannot help but feel involved and even responsible for problems.

Although these patterns of abuse may be present in abusive parents of both genders, societal differences in expectations for mothers and fathers give men more leverage for use of abusive tactics focused on parenting (Guppy et al., 2019; Shafer et al., 2020). Because of these broader social patterns, disparagement of mothers and mothering is easier (due to the higher benchmarks to which mothers are held) and more effective (due to the strong ties to mothers’ self-worth), creating especially fertile ground for domestically abusive fathers to exploit (Heward-Belle, 2017).

In addition, the parenting practices in racialized and immigrant families are often different than the dominant population (Chaze, 2015; Yax-Fraser, 2011). The impact of immigrant women’s settlement experiences on their mothering practices needs to be recognized. Multiple challenges such as social isolation, poor English or French language proficiency, lack of support networks, financial stressors, and the role of culture, traditions and religion create different power relations within the family unit and result in unique vulnerabilities for these women post-separation, especially if their partners are abusive.

3.3.3 Additional concerns about parenting in perpetrators of domestic violence

There are several additional concerns about parenting that occur at greater rates in parents who perpetrate domestic violence. This paper has already outlined concerns about the co-occurrence of domestic violence perpetration with hostility, over-reactivity and physically abusive behaviours towards children (Herrenkohl et al., 2008; Stith et al., 2009).

Lack of emotional responsivity and positive involvement of a domestically violent parent with their children has also been the focus of research (Bancroft et al., 2012; Scott & Crooks, 2004). Research has focused mostly on fathers, finding that fathers who perpetrate IPV often have limited capacity to think about the thoughts and feelings of their children, and generally have less emotionally close relationships (Francis & Wolfe, 2008; Smith Stover & Spink, 2012).

It is also important to recognize that substance use, criminality and depression all occur considerably more often in the context of domestic violence perpetration than in families without violence (Trevillion et al., 2015). The problematic co-occurrence of these issues exacerbates negative outcomes for children (Coley et al., 2011; Stover et al., 2013). Fathers with co-occurring substance abuse and IPV have less positive co-parenting, more negative parenting, and children with more emotional and behavioural problems.

3.3.4 Children’s view of their abusive parent

Recognizing the value of children’s perspectives, researchers have studied children’s perceptions of their relationships with a parent who has perpetrated family violence. These studies have largely focused on children’s views of fathers who have engaged in IPV. Children often describe their fathers as overreactive to small annoyances and instances of perceived misbehaviour, and frequently rejecting of their perspectives, experiences and emotions (Holt, 2015; Ă˜verlien, 2013, 2014). Children may justifiably fear their father and express anxiety about contact (McDonald, 2016). Additionally, children who have been exposed to IPV commonly describe their fathers as being emotionally and psychologically absent, and express feelings of estrangement and wanting to have their fathers “know” them (Holt, 2015). Less is known about the impact of mothers who are perpetrators of family violence, as there is a scarcity of research assessing children’s perspectives on how their mother’s perpetration of family violence impacts them and their relationships (Ross & Babcock, 2010).

Children living with family violence may sometimes identify with the victim parent and become protective. In other cases, children may identify with the abusive parent, viewing them as a “role model,” and be influenced by the abusers into rejecting their victimized mothers, which is a form of parental alienation (Fidler & Bala, 2020). Adolescents who have lived with family violence may model the behaviour of their father and start to treat their mothers in an abusive fashion as well (Heise, 2011). Children may become ambivalent about the abuser because they see both the good qualities and the indefensible abuse. Some children may be challenged to make sense of what happened and may fluctuate in their views and even turn on the victim later for not leaving the marriage earlier (Jaffe et al., 2011; Katz, 2019; Lapierre et al., 2018). Minimization or denial of abuse by parents or by the court can further compound harms by leading children to question the validity of their distress, fear and anger, or to learn to attribute these reactions to a flaw in themselves rather than as an understandable reaction to their situation (Cicchetti & Rogosch, 1994; Meier, 2021).

3.4 Relevance of IPV to post-separation parenting of the victim parent

Being a victim of family violence creates significant challenges and complexities for victimized parents, both before and following separation. Assumptions and expectations held of mothers and motherhood amplify these challenges and constrain reactions for women victims, in particular (Heward-Belle, 2017; Lapierre, 2008, 2020). Several considerations around the parenting of victimized parents are reviewed here.

3.4.1 Children exposed to family violence may have greater needs

As already discussed, children living in homes where they are exposed to family violence are themselves affected, and as a result, they often need support and protection (Katz, 2019; Lapierre et al., 2018). Children exposed to family violence are more likely than other children to experience internalizing disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety, fears) and externalizing behaviours (e.g., oppositional, aggressive behaviours). They are also more likely to have problems in school; and to struggle with peer relationships and they may experience trauma associated with family violence exposure. Children may also have other emotional, behavioural, cognitive or developmental challenges with different origins (e.g., Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder) that are amplified by the uncertainty, unpredictability and anxiety children experience in the context of family violence. Parenting a child who is struggling with emotional, behavioural, cognitive or developmental challenges is stressful and challenging for parents (Stone et al., 2016). It is also typical for parents to have different views about the severity of the challenges their children are experiencing and about involving various helping professionals (Wahlin & Deane, 2012). In the context of family violence victimization, these conversations and decisions are even more difficult, and may result in abusive parents taking positions in family court litigation that do not promote their children’s best interests.

3.4.2 Parenting choices are often constrained by the abuser

As already noted, the victimized parent’s parenting can often be limited and constrained by the abuser as a deliberate tactic of abuse and control. In the context of family violence, a person’s choices are also often limited, which means that their scope of actions as parents is limited as well (Lapierre, 2010; Radford & Hester, 2006). This may mean that victim parents cannot access social groups, family members or friends as part of parenting (coercive control), or that they may have to constantly negotiate and justify financial support needed to buy items necessary for children (financial abuse). Perpetrators may also present as “jealous” of the relationship of the other parent with the children and may limit or attempt to control the amount of time, interaction or communication the other parent has with their children (Katz, 2019; Lapierre et al., 2018). Constraints on the victimized parent do not end with separation. Thiara and Humphreys (2017) used the term “absent presence” to reflect the ways in which perpetrators can continue to constrain and limit the victimized mothers’ parenting through harassing behaviours during contact and in the context of litigation. Litigation abuse may be part of this pattern.

3.4.3 Decisions not to report and not to leave are often misunderstood or reinterpreted

There are many reasons that victims of domestic violence do not report their abuse to the police, or even disclose it to friends or relatives. They have often been told by the perpetrator that they have no legal rights, will not be believed, will have the children taken away, or are entitled to no money. While the victim may well have been misinformed about their rights and the consequences of reporting, they may believe the threats of repercussions from reporting to the police.

Victims want the violence to stop, but for many reasons including experiences of discrimination and racism, they may not want to involve the police. Other potential reasons for non-reporting may include: concern about the economic consequences of the abuser being arrested; social judgments; cultural norms; fear of the involvement of the child protection system; a concern about the effects on their children of police involvement with their family; and desire to avoid increasing tension in their relationship with the other parent.

There are also many reasons that victims remain in abusive relationships. It is sometimes the case that, while in the situation, victims blame themselves, minimize the abuse happening to them, remain hopeful for change, and may underestimate the danger they are in. These women have developed a coping strategy over the years to normalize the abuse and they really do not see the abuse they were subject to. In other cases, victims’ decisions not to leave are based on concerns about the safety of their children. Some women believe that there is absolutely no way their abuser will not get significant parenting time if they leave, so they choose to stay to protect their children.

Victim’s choices and responses to family violence may be raised to challenge their credibility in later court proceedings. For example, in R v Brame,2003 YKTC 76, a man was charged with several offences arising from the abuse of the mother of his young child. He argued that the fact that she did not report the offences to the police until after their separation was the basis for discounting her credibility. He was convicted, with the trial judge rejecting this challenge to her credibility, and observing:

There is no evidence before the Court, expert or otherwise, that suggests that such conduct makes it less likely that the complainant was a victim of domestic violence. To the contrary, the experience of this court with domestic violence cases indicates that such conduct is often the norm, rather than the exception. This court’s experience is that:

  • Victims of domestic violence are often very willing to forgive their perpetrators;
  • The great majority of domestic violence victims return to live with their perpetrators;
  • Most victims seldom involve the police until they have been assaulted numerous times;
  • Victims honestly believe the violence will stop and do not appreciate the extent to which they are placing themselves and their children at risk; and
  • Education and financial independence do not immunize women against remaining in abusive or violent relationships. (R v Brame, 2003, YKTC 76)

The conviction was upheld by the Yukon Court of Appeal (2004 YKCA 13), with Donald JA quoting this statement of the trial Judge and observing, “We now question formerly held assumptions about human behaviour in the context of domestic abuse.”

3.4.4 Protective strategies of victimized parents are often misunderstood

As has been well documented in research, parents who have experienced violence develop a range of strategies to protect and care for their children, even in the context of the abuser’s constraints (Nixon et al., 2017; Radford & Hester, 2001, 2006; Wendt et al., 2015). Such strategies may include keeping children away from the perpetrating parent, and parenting in ways that anticipate and try to avoid triggering the perpetrating parent’s abusive behaviours (Lapierre, 2010; Wendt et al., 2015). Many victims report that they faced significant obstacles to getting their stories of abuse understood by lawyers and judges, who may not understand their protective strategies (Gutowski & Goodman, 2020). One critical and common example concerns a mother’s allowing a perpetrator to have parenting time being interpreted as indicative of a lack of fear that he would harm the children. Once agreed to, these actions tend to be reinterpreted without reference to the protective motivation that led to the behaviours in the first place. Such interpretation does not reflect the reality of victims and their concerns (Harrison, 2008). Victimized mothers, in an effort to prevent further harm, often want to resolve disagreements as quickly as possible. This may lead victimized mothers to agree to proposals for father-child contact arrangements despite concerns for their children’s safety and for their own safety, due to fears that failing to agree would increase the anger and hostility of the abuser (Harrison, 2008).

3.4.5 Victimized parents often have fewer resources

Family violence impacts the victimized parents’ physical and mental health, resulting in higher rates of symptoms and disorders of trauma, anxiety, depression, and a range of other problems. These impacts on victimized parents’ health are likely to make it more challenging for them to perform the often difficult, time-consuming, and exhausting work of caring for children (Katz, 2019). The fact the perpetrators often directly target the mother-child relationship makes these difficulties even more acute. The result is an erosion of self-esteem and the undermining of mother-child relationships, which continue to create a shadow across the parent-child relationship even after separation from their abusive partner (Thiara & Humphreys, 2017). These issues put a strain on mother-child relationships that add to the challenges mothers experience (Katz, 2019; Lapierre et al., 2018).

3.4.6 No win situation: Victim parents “fail to protect” or “alienate”

In contexts where allegations of family violence are not externally verified as severe or ongoing, mothers are generally expected to support and facilitate the relationship between children and their fathers. When it comes to facilitating parenting time, a victimized parent may be in a particularly fraught “no win” situation. Children may not want to have contact with a parent who has perpetrated IPV for reasons that are independent of anything that the victimized parent, most often the mother, may or may not have said or done. Victimized mothers, expressing realistic concerns about father-child parenting time, or even presenting their children’s concerns about parenting time with their fathers to professionals or the courts, may be viewed as “unreasonable” or “alienating” (Barnett, 2020; Harrison, 2006; Lapierre et al., 2020; Neilson, 2018; Rathus, 2020). This creates a situation for victimized parents where, rather than being able to offer emotional and practical support to their children, they must instead focus on ensuring that children meet with their abusive parent. Efforts to support children in dealing with their reluctance, even expressing empathy and understanding, runs a high risk of being viewed as alienating.

3.4.7 Victim parents often struggle with self-blame

Parents who are victims of family violence use a range of strategies to protect their children from abuse and its impacts. They also often feel that they have failed in this protective role. Mothers especially are likely to have internalized high societal expectations with regards to being a mother and to see themselves as not being either “good” or “good enough” parents to their children (Lapierre, 2010; Moulding et al., 2015; Stewart, 2020). Mothers who have been abused often feel that, although they may have been able to protect their children and meet their basic needs, they have been less successful about caring for their children’s emotional needs, particularly fears, anxieties and impacts resulting from exposure to abuse (Lapierre, 2010). Such fears are often reinforced by abusive parents’ direct undermining of the parent-child relationship and continued reframing of the mother being a “bad parent.”

Child Protective Services (CPS) sometimes (unfairly) place the responsibility for protecting children from exposure to abuse on the victimized parent, rather than on the parent who is causing harm (Humphreys & Absler, 2011). Such blame is particularly likely for mothers who are poor, racialized, Indigenous, immigrants, refugees, or other marginalized populations. Based on a review of 13 research studies conducted in four different countries over several decades, Humphreys and Absler (2011) examined how domestic violence had been addressed by child protection services and identified “mother-blaming” as a dominant response. Their work revealed that too often abused women have been seen by child protection workers as “inadequate” mothers who “fail to protect” their children, while their abusive male partners are ignored. Because of societal expectations of mothers and the associated greater involvement of mothers in the day-to-day care of children’s needs, these patterns can also be played out in more general health, mental health, and social services (Moulding et al., 2015).

In some cases, CPS will learn that a mother has taken her children and left her abusive partner and will close its file without recognizing her continuing vulnerability and need for ongoing support.

3.4.8 Children’s views of their victimized parent

Often in cases of family violence, mothers are both the primary caregiver and the victim of violence. In these contexts, research has found that children generally have a close relationship with their mother and see her as their main source of protection and support (Buchanan et al., 2015; Lapierre et al., 2018; Mullender et al., 2002; Ă˜verlien, 2014). However, family violence often puts strain on the mother-child relationship, with greater levels of strain associated with more frequent and severe victimization and greater undermining of the mother-child relationship by the father (Katz, 2019; Lapierre, 2010; Radford & Hester, 2006). When interviewed, children often describe difficult relationships with mothers victimized by domestic violence, even though they saw their mothers as the significant figure in their lives with whom they had the closest relationships (Lapierre et al., 2018). Children’s relationships with their mothers also tend to be poorer when there are higher levels of coercive control (Katz, 2019).